Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I’m in an odd position with this film since I’ve been on the ground with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh with the Hobbit reports as they’ve been gearing up for their big premiere. As a result I was able to talk to many people involved about the documentary way in advance.
So, I understand if you think there’s a bias when I say West of Memphis is the definitive West Memphis Three documentary, but it’s my honest reaction.
I’ve been championing Paradise Lost since before the second film was released and I can’t tell you how surreal it was to see John Mark Byers and Pam Hobbs in the attendance. In fact, there was a fascinating mix of emotional West Memphis Three supporters (before the movie started I saw one blonde woman literally cry at the sight of Damien Echols and asked if she could give him a hug) and complete newbies to the case. There was even a guy that my pal Kraken heard in the richie-badge line (expensive express festival badges) who said he didn’t know anything about the case, but how sick it was that three child killers got off because Eddie Vedder asked them to.
As usual with most high profile festivals there are a great many older socialites that attend not because they’re particularly huge movie fans, but because it’s something to do. Many of those types were in the crowd, much of Echols’ defense team was there and the rest were a mix of standard movie addicts and WM3 supporters.
The very first question I’ve gotten on Twitter and in person since seeing the film was “is it better than Paradise Lost?” That’s impossible to answer. There’s nothing that can compete with that first Paradise Lost film on any level. The impact it had on spreading the word on this horrific case, the way it PUT you in that courtroom and the fly-on-the-wall feeling of being on the ground as that initial trial was underway will never be topped and West of Memphis doesn’t try to.
What it does instead is lay out the crime, the city, the hysteria at the time and all the key players in the ensuing clusterfuck of litigation in the most detailed, yet easy to swallow way yet put before the eyes of the public.
Those 150 minutes are dense, but didn’t drag, even for someone like me who knows a lot of the details of the case. Director Amy Berg seemed to go out of her way to not use the same news video from 1994 that was used in the Paradise Lost films and only went back to that well-used trial footage for a few key moments, usually as a means of comparing the new evidence to the original claims by the prosecution.
From where I was sitting, I believe the film has five main threads. The Intro, The Update, The Love Story, The Finger-Pointing and The Future.
The intro sets up the broad scenario as it was originally reported in 1993. Three young, innocent children were found brutally murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. The police announce they have three suspects in custody, one of them has a confession and the leader is an 18 year old Satanic cultist.
It’s a very smart way of opening the film because it acts as a refresher of what the fervor was at the time of the trial for those that already know the case and it sets the stage for those that don’t know it. In fact, it sets them up to get caught up in that fervor, too. The police say they did it, the state is trying them for it, one of them confessed, one is a quiet type and one’s a flashy dark haired kid that doesn’t seem to be taking any of this seriously. Shit, these guys fit the bill, don’t they?
Gradually the intro expands as the victim’s families spend time describing their children and the officials tell their sides of the story, some of them still to this day convinced they were in the right and the three men behind bars are the ones who killed those children. Through family photos and the tears of the parents they left behind Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers become more than just crime scene bodies. Those shots make you flinch, are really hard to view and were never comfortable viewing. But this is the first time I’ve felt like I got a feel for their personalities.
There’s also a lot more on the families of the victims themselves, including one of the most heartbreaking parts of the documentary for me, introducing us to Amanda Hobbs, brother to Stevie Branch. She was a toddler when he died, but what happened to the family afterwards has severely traumatized her to the point that she has become a shattered adult. She’s shown to be the kind of person you just want to hug and tell her it’ll be alright, especially when you find out more about her father.
The Update is more a focus on the defense, the lawyers that have been working pro-bono, the evidence that didn’t quite match up at the time and then the new evidence uncovered as Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh became involved. Jackson appears on camera, but the focus is more on what was uncovered by the money he donated to the defense’s investigation, with a huge focus on experts coming back with animal predation and the results of the DNA testing.
The animal predation section in particular is shocking. It’s one thing to hear that turtles could have caused the mutilation on the bodies, but it’s another thing to see evidence of it, to see a man take a turtle bite on the arm and see how it lines up exactly like the mutilation on the kids. The Update is the biggest focus of the doc and the next part, The Love Story, entwines with it. This basically shows us Damien and his wife Lorri Davis, what they’re like as a couple, how they support each other while Damien rots in prison and she fights every day to bring attention to his case, hoping to beat the clock as Damien inches closer and closer to death by lethal injection.
Much like getting a feeling of who the murdered children were at the beginning of the movie, I feel like people are going to know just who Lorri and Damien are as people. Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin don’t get much screentime until the end of the doc, so we don’t really get to know them the same way, unfortunately, but I’d imagine that’d make this already long film too much.
The Finger-Pointing comes on the tail end of the new evidence presented as a strand of hair was uncovered in the knot of one of the bindings on the children does not match any of the men convicted of the crime. It has to match somebody and criminal profiler John Douglas breaks down the evidence and shifts the focus to another suspect.
While I will say Berg takes great efforts to get everybody’s side of the story, getting interviews with the unmoving Judge David Burnett and much of the prosecution team, she doesn’t shy away from accusing Terry Hobbs, one of the boys’ stepfathers, and spends a lot of the latter part of the doc on him.
There’s no question as to what her thoughts were, but they were backed up almost clinically by the specialists brought on to the case.
For those that have seen Paradise Lost 3, this is where the majority of the overlap between the two films lays, with this man under a microscope, but Berg was able to go a little deeper, actually finding new testimony and new witnesses that are kind of mindblowing. A whole new trail of evidence is uncovered and I won’t tell you what that is so it’s a surprise when you eventually see the film, but it’s pretty damning stuff.
The Future takes us through the Alford Plea taken by the West Memphis Three, explores why they took it and how that still effects their lives. We don’t get much past their release because it just happened… there were interviews from two weeks ago in the documentary if my eyes weren’t deceiving me… but this is where we get to see more of Misskelley and Baldwin, who gets a particular poignant moment with his best friend and mother post-release.
It’s a bittersweet ending because these men are finally released, finally able to start their lives again, but still have the cloud of felony murder convictions hanging over them.
In two and a half hours we get to know dozens of people, get a rundown of the state’s evidence, a thorough dissection of their case by respected professionals, a beat by beat, evidence by evidence counter-argument and a case made against someone else. There’s nothing vague about this doc. There will always be unanswered questions, but the film is systematic in breaking down Hobbs’ alibi, establishing a history of violence, establishing a motive and introducing new witnesses that place him with the boys within the window of time in which they disappeared.
So, when I say it’s the definitive documentary, that’s not a slam on Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who have made three great films about the case, including the most important film of any of them with that first documentary, but an honest assessment of Amy Berg’s work. She’s taking a long view and doesn’t shy away from the emotional moments. She’s also not afraid to let the counter arguments be made and gives a lot of time to those who disagree with the belief that the state of Arkansas was in the wrong.
This is the film that you put in front of someone when they say “The West Memphis Three? What’s that?” This is the film you show to those people like the man in line, who heard about the case and think the police probably got the right people and if it wasn’t for those stupid meddling Hollywood types they would be in jail where they belong! This is the film you show people who know the case and need to get fired up to finish the fight and get these men fully exonerated, which paves the way for the new suspect, the one who has a hundred times more motive and evidence against him than any of these three guys did, to be tried. It’s a film that covers all the bases as thoroughly as if it was its own trial and we were the jury. It’s a film that needs to be seen.
No word yet on if it has been picked up, but I can’t imagine we won’t see it getting distribution by the end of Sundance. I know it’s headed to the Santa Barbara Film Festival next week and will be on the fest circuit for the next few months, but I’d be shocked if we don’t see this getting a big release of some kind.
You’ve seen pictures throughout this piece from the Q&A afterwards featuring Amy Berg, Peter, Fran, Damien as well as a few of the defense lawyers, who fielded some of the legal questions in ways that lawyers do (“Is there any way for the WM3 to file a civil lawsuit against the State of Arkansas after taking the Alford Plea?” “No.”).
It should also be noted that Damien and Lorri received a standing ovation from the entire crowd when they were brought up. As famous as Peter Jackson is, it wasn’t him and Fran who got this reception.
During the Q&A Damien pointed out both Pam Hobbs, who he sat down with for the very first time the night before, and John Mark Byers. My stupid camera decided it didn’t like the focus or something, so I missed a great shot as Byers stood up and waved to the audience, but I’ll show you the shot my camera did decide was good enough to actually allow the shutter to snap:
Oh well, there goes my photojournalism award for a fancy shot of Byers with Damien out of focus behind him. Thanks Nikon!
Hope that read alright. It’s now almost 4:00am and I have to be up in about four hours for another full day of movies, so I get to pull the “exhausted and bleary-eyed” card if I rambled too much or left in more typos than usual.
Tomorrow brings the Frank Langella teams up with a robot to pull off one last heist flick Robot & Frank, Bradley Cooper in The Words, teenage romance flick The First Time and the Kate Bosworth thriller Black Rock! Stay tuned!